On Scientific and Religious Truths

On Scientific and Religious Truths

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Attitudes of practitioners 

By and large, in the writings of theologians and scholars on science and religion, the following elements may be detected:  

(a) One tries to establish the concordances between science and the religion of one’s own affiliation/upbringing.  

(b) One tries to defend, justify, and/or interpret the religions tenets and doctrines.  

(c) One works in a framework of reason, argumentation, and rationality, with references and quotes from eminent thinkers of the tradition.  

However, there are countless millions who practice various religions without any knowledge of the writings of these scholars, especially in the matter of justifying doctrines in terms of current science. The general practitioners of most religions derive immense spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment from rites and rituals, from psalms and feasts, without inquiring into or trying to understand their esoteric symbolism, historical roots, or doctrinal bases, let alone their concordance (if any) with thermodynamics, cosmology, or evolution of the species.  

In this context, it is fair to say that the so-called common people have grasped the essence and function of religion more than the experts in the field, for they have understood that religion is something to be deeply felt, experienced, and lived, rather than something that has to be discussed, debated, and proved.  

This is not to say that theologians and scholars are irrelevant in the institution and functioning of religions. They are in fact very necessary for providing the framework for the intellectual understanding of religions, just as, for the actual practice and continuance of religious traditions priesthood of some sort or another is indispensable. However, it must be realized that when it comes to deriving benefits and satisfactions from religions, priests are more important than philosophers; and when it comes to the innermost religious/spiritual experience, those who have the deepest faith need neither priests nor theologians.  

Indeed, in some instances priests and theologians may even detract from the deep-felt religious experience; as in some others, logical analyses and theoretical justifications of rites and rituals may shake the faith of the heart. For, no matter how psychologists and neuroscientists interpret it, religious faith is not based on proofs and rationality, but results from an experience of a different category. It is important to recognize this in any theoretical analysis of science and religion.

Facts and truths 

This dichotomy between scholarly dissertations on the one hand and religious practice on the other is a paradox whose resolution may be found in the clarifications of the notions of fact and truth.  

We become aware of the world around us through our sensory faculties. A fact refers to the existence/presence of a thing or an event as perceived (directly or with the aid of instruments) by our normal sensory faculties. Thus there can be unanimity of agreement as to the facts of a situation/phenomenon among people who have normal sensory faculties.  

A truth, on the other hand, is the interpretation and apprehension of a fact.  What this means is that truth is very much a function of the state of the mind that interprets the fact. Thus one might say: Facts are what there seem to be; Truths are how they seem to me.  

Given that truth is the apprehension of a fact, the same fact may appear as different truths to different individuals. This is why there are honest disagreements among intelligent people of goodwill as to what constitutes the truth of a case. This is why there is no such thing as the absolute truth.  

This distinction between fact and truth is of the utmost importance in any discussion on science and religion. Those who argue that science alone leads to correct knowledge tend to forget that science is essentially an interpretation of facts. On the other hand, those who insist that religion provides us with the ultimate answers as to the nature of the world and of human existence tend to imagine that the truths which their religion proclaims is a true reflection of how the world is. Put differently, the world of science tends to equate fact with truth, while the world of religion tends to equate truth with fact.  

There is another distinction between fact and truth that needs to be recognized. Facts are items of information about the world around. They are essentially static, and outside of the human mind. Truths, on the other hand, being interpretations of facts, are in human minds. There are things and events in the physical world, but they become truths only when there are thinking entities. Once a fact is apprehended as a truth, it becomes dynamic: that is to say, it is no longer an item of information in the external world, but can serve some purpose. For example, it may be used for some practical purpose. In other words, it can lead to consequences: Truths are potent.

Exopotent and endopotent truths 

Now we take up the question: What is the essential difference between scientific and religious truths? Before we answer this question, let us consider two examples.  

(a) The second law of thermodynamics. In all natural processes, the entropy of a closed system tends to increase. This is a scientific truth. It can be used, among other things, in the construction of engines.  

 (b) The immortality of the soul. After death, the human soul continues, and will be judged some day, rewarded and punished for its actions. This is a religious truth. The recognition of this truth can have a significant impact on one’s life.  

 Let us consider how these examples illustrate the difference between scientific and religious truths:   

A scientific truth can and often does have consequences (impacts) on our understanding and manipulation of the external world. We may say that scientific truths are exopotent. Exopotent truths are fruitful, i.e. they lead to useful/practical applications. It is important to realize that even mistaken interpretations of the physical world may constitute scientific truths. Thus, at one time, the phlogiston theory of heat and the (Newtonian) corpuscular theory of light were scientific truths.  

A religious truth can have consequences (impacts) on our internal experience of life as individuals, especially in the context of our particular circumstances.  We may say that religious truths as endopotent. Endopotent truths are fulfilling, i.e. they lead to psychologically/emotionally satisfying consequences. It must be realized that even atheism and other philosophical frameworks which do not belong to particular religious traditions (or which may be a synthesis of several) are endopotent truths. More generally, endopotency is the characteristic of all the truths revealed by the humanities (art, literature, poetry, etc.)  

Two things become clear from this analysis:  

(a) We need scientific truths or deriving practical benefits.  

(b) We need religious truths (truths from the humanities) for deriving inner peace and satisfaction.  

Inner peace, aesthetic satisfactions, and emotional security (endopotent factors) are more important than practical additions to creature comforts (exopotent factors). It is therefore not surprising that religion has always been a major factor in human culture and civilization. Contrary to the recommendation or desire of some rationalist thinkers, religions can and will never be completely eradicated.  

Action potentials: beneficent and maleficent impacts 

Any truth, whether religious or scientific, has action potentials, i.e. is capable of provoking actions of one kind or another. And in every case, the action itself could be exopotent or endopotent or both. It is important to realize that whereas religious truths by themselves are only endopotent, the actions stemming from them could be endopotent or exopotent. Thus, for example, engagement in prayer is an endopotent action, and an act of charity or kindness towards a fellow human being is an exopotent action. Both are beneficent in nature. On the other hand, a superstitious fear arising from a religious belief is maleficent and endopotent, while religious persecution of heretics is maleficent and exopotent.  

Some actions may be beneficent in an endopotent way and maleficent in an exopotent way. The fanatical behavior of religious bigots who engage in holy wars are of this kind.  

Similarly, in the realm of science, the manufacture and use of chemical weapons are instances of maleficent and exopotent actions, whereas the use of vaccines is beneficent and exopotent. In some instances, it is difficult to foresee whether a particular scientific truth will lead to beneficent or maleficent actions. Our understanding of the human genome is one such. This analysis enables us to spell out criteria for the retention or rejection of truths, both scientific and religious. Those who argue eloquently against religion stress the maleficent exopotent potentials of religion, and those who argue for science stress its beneficent exopotent potentials, and conversely.  

It should be our collective effort to modify religious institutions and doctrines, and also to direct the goals of science so as to rid their action potentials of their maleficent components, and enhance their beneficent ones becoming more satisfying and less harmful than they have been. This should be the project for the coming millennium.